For years I’ve resisted the notion of entrepreneurial “vision”. I’ve never liked the term much, and I’ve found it to proliferate throughout my industry and others. Don’t get me wrong – this kind of vision exists – but it’s extremely rare. We often misattribute vision for hard work, creativity, and drive; key qualities for entrepreneurs, but they’re something short of vision.
If you need to work hard to convince people you have it, you probably don’t. I sat down with two founders recently to discuss their startup and it was clear – as is often the case in these situations – that one was the brains behind the operation, and one was just hanging around. Both were intelligent guys but one was clearly in control of the company and held the vision of what needed to happen. However it was the other one that talked of founder “vision”, what his vision for the company was, etc. This was at a busy coffee shop on Sand Hill Road, and it left me wondering how many times this exact conversation played out in the same location. It’s like so many other qualities in life – if you need to work hard to convince people you have it, you probably don’t.
It can set unrealistic expectations, both high and low. I strongly believe that everyone (entrepreneurs especially) need to be judged on their actions, abilities, and results. Relying too much on “vision” can hamper success in two ways: either letting people off the hook for doing a poor job, or attributing someone’s hard work and drive to it.Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how we misattribute genius in his book, Outliers, and we often extend the same kind of thinking to entrepreneurial vision. Either way, it can set unrealistic expectations on the part of co-workers and investors alike. It can also cause problems when companies need to adapt but can’t because the founder is too focused on his or her vision.
Vision is nothing without timing. It has been said that the iPad is the 18-year culmination of Apple’s vision of mobile computing. However the Newton was less than stellar despite then-Apple-CEO John Sculley’s fanfare when he introduced it in 1992 (Jobs killed the Newton when he returned to Apple). Jobs’ own performance didn’t really hit it’s stride (remember NeXT?) until he became CEO of Pixar prior to returning to Apple in 1996. Timing is everything – both the Newton (reborn as the iPad) and Job’s own abilities as CEO were industry-changing, but out of sync with their markets. Is Jobs a visionary CEO? Definitely. Is the iPad a visionary device? You bet. But nether was compelling in their first iterations. The difference between a bad idea and a visionary one can often be a simple matter of timing.
It can foster a sense of entitlement. This is one of the most destructive forces I’ve seen in startups – the sense of entitlement around “vision”. This doesn’t have to come from the founders, it can come from early architects or engineers who hold the product vision very tightly. So tightly, in fact, that efforts to change and grow the product or business is met with resistance. As the company grows, this can be fatal.
It is often defined after the fact. Think Steve Jobs returning to Apple in ’96. Many feel the the best way to define vision is proof – but it makes vision a priori very difficult to get a handle on. As Clay Shirky rightly points out in Cognitive Surplus, many of today’s successes in technology are due as much to timing and accidents to actual vision. Attributing every raging success to the vision of its architect doesn’t help us in coming to grips with the notion of entrepreneurial vision.
Again, there is such a thing as founder vision — but it takes experience to cultivate, time and context to identify, and entrepreneurial drive to make it real.
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.